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Crossing the Sauer

Fontainebleau: Air Raid


  It was December, 1944. We were a group of replacements traveling across France--no, we were a group of replacements being shipped across France on our way to the front. We were shipped mostly by train, packed in narrow boxcars called 40 and 8’s, designed, we were told, for 40 men or 8 horses. These boxcars moved very slowly with frequent delays and stops. But when they stopped and you jumped off to relieve yourself by the side of the tracks, you had to be alert because without warning the train could suddenly take off again and leave you behind.
  We were in the boxcars for three days and sleep was a big problem. You had to sleep in a sitting position because if you stretched out on the floor, your legs would lie on top of the legs of the guy sitting against the opposite wall.
  We fetched up, as the English say, late one afternoon at a repot depot (ree-poh dee-poh) in Fontainebleau. It was a large two-storied, armory-type building. The bunks were double, made of wood, with straw for the bedding, and with a board running alongside the straw so it wouldn’t fall out. We carried our own blankets in our duffel bags. A Frenchman told me later that this building had been used by the Germans as a training center for officers. I wondered if I were lying on the same straw a German officer had slept on or had they changed the straw since?
  Fontainebleau was great living. We had electricity, lights. We had heat. We had indoor plumbing. And we were to have three hot meals a day instead of cold K Rations. Nobody was complaining.
  That first night, just before ten o’clock, we were all lounging around on our beds. Lights were still on. Suddenly we heard the droning of a plane’s engine in the black sky overhead. I was bunking upstairs. Near the top of the stairs, on the lower bunk, was a sergeant. He was permanent here, a member of the cadre that ran the building.
   “Air raid! Air raid!” this cadre sergeant screamed. “Turn off those fuckin’ lights!”
  The lights were turned off. Somebody turned on a flashlight.
   “Turn that fuckin’ light off!” the sergeant yelled. The light was turned off before he said off. “I’ll shoot the next stupid bastard who turns on a fuckin’ light!”
  Wow! That was pretty drastic. I guess he had a weapon. No replacement did. We hadn’t been issued weapons.
   “Put out your cigarettes!” the sergeant bellowed. “They can see those!”
  I was on the bottom bunk. The guy on the bunk above me came hurtling down and frantically started putting his shoes and socks on. I was just about to do the same and then I thought, If we’re going to be blown up, what good will it do to have your shoes on? My natural laziness took over and I stayed put.
  This was our first contact with the enemy and he had the upper hand. We were lying here at his mercy. We listened intently to the droning and waited with pounding hearts for the bombs to drop. It was thrilling and scary.
  And then all hell broke loose. There was a tremendous din. We jerked involuntarily when we heard it. Anti-aircraft guns were firing all around our building. They sounded like they were positioned just outside our walls. They filled the sky with exploding shells. We could no longer hear the droning. Then after a seemingly-long time, the ack-ack guns took a breather. We could hear the droning again. They hadn’t gotten him. It sounded like he was circling around. And then the droning faded away into the distance.
  Whew! We could breathe again and murmurs broke the deathly quiet of the floor.
  Subsequently we learned that the attacking force in the air raid consisted of a lone unarmed German observation plane. He came punctually every night just before ten o’clock. We called him Bed-Check Charley. When we realized he was no danger to us, we thought of him as a damn nuisance and cursed him because he disrupted whatever we were doing and caused us to turn the lights off. He must have been a damn nuisance for the anti-aircraft boys, too. Every night they fired away and missed.
  Why did the cadre sergeant carry on so that first night? I suppose he wanted to have some fun with us.
  And yet, even after we knew the plane posed no risk to us, we heard him with a certain unease. Hearing an enemy aircraft over your head states your vulnerability. Was this the night he would drop a bomb?